Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

One of the underrated comedy teams in cinema might be Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  Although I haven't seen any of the GRUMPY OLD MEN films that Lemmon and Matthau did toward the  twilight of their careers, I knew they had made some successful comedies together beginning in the 1960's. It turns out they made ten films together.  Their most popular film is undoubtedly THE ODD COUPLE (1968). As a kid, I watched the television series of the same name with Tony Randall in the Lemmon role and Jack Klugman playing the Matthau role. But Lemmon and Matthau's first film pairing together is a film directed by the great Billy Wilder called THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966).

THE FORTUNE COOKIE seems like a film school exercise in filmmaking for director Wilder. Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond take something Wilder had seen on TV which was a ball player running into someone on the sidelines and expound on that idea. Wilder had certainly built up some clout after directing classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, STALAG 17, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and THE APARTMENT. But THE FORTUNE COOKIE is not as prestigious as those earlier films.  It's a small film for Wilder that boasts great writing and an Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actor performance by Walter Matthau.

Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is a cameraman filming the sidelines at a Cleveland Browns football game for CBS Sports.  During a punt return, football player Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich) plows into Hinkle on the sideline, knocking him unconscious. Hinkle awakens in the hospital to find his conniving brother-in-law and lawyer "Whiplash" Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) hovering over him.  Hinkle wants to get out of the hospital but Gingrich sees a lawsuit and a million dollars to be shared between them by suing CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Hinkle wants nothing to do with the scam but Gingrich uses Hinkle's ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) as bait, telling Hinkle that Sandy (an aspiring singer who left Hinkle for a drummer) wants to come see him.  Hinkle, with reservations, agrees to fake his injury. Gingrich meets with the insurance company's law firm of O'Brien (Harry Holcombe), Thompson (Les Tremayne), and Kinkaid (Lauren Gilbert). The three lawyers are dubious of the claim and try to settle for much less with Gingrich. Gingrich balks at the offer.

Hinkle finally gets to go home. The insurance company, suspicious of Gingrich, send their top detective Purkey (Cliff Osmond) to spy on Hinkle, hoping to catch Hinkle running around his apartment. Boom Boom feeling guilty about injuring Hinkle, begins to visit regularly and helps with cooking and cleaning.  Sandy arrives to help Hinkle recuperate. Boom Boom hopes Hinkle and Sandy might get back together. Gingrich discovers that Purkey has planted little microphones throughout Hinkle's apartment, trying to catch Gingrich and Hinkle in their lie. Boom Boom, still wracked with guilt, gets into a fight at a bowling alley he owns and gets kicked off the Cleveland Browns football team. The insurance firm lawyers still want to settle for far less than Gingrich wants so Gingrich pulls out his ultimate scheme: to set up a charitable foundation in Harry Hinkle's name to help handicapped children. Naturally, no disabled child will ever see that money except for Gingrich who's already spending Hinkle's settlement money on cars and a fur coat for his wife even before they've settled.

The law firm settles for $200,000.  Hinkle finds out that Boom Boom has been kicked off the team and decides to end the charade. He stands up in front of the detective Purkey, who's come over to collect his tiny microphones.  Hinkle reveals his injury was a fake and walks out on Gingrich and Sandy. Hinkle drives over to Municipal Stadium to apologize to Boom Boom, the one honest human being who actually cared about Hinkle.

As I said before, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is an odd choice for director Wilder. Maybe he'd run out of big film ideas.  It's not that FORTUNE COOKIE is a bad film. It has a terrific comedy duo, a nice jazzy score by Andre Previn, and every scene seems well thought out although the film drags in its final act. But it may mark the last decent film by Wilder. After COOKIE, Wilder's mostly successful run of great films would end as neither of his next two pictures THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) or AVANTI! (1972) would be hits.

But Wilder and Diamond's writing and script is strong in COOKIE.  The two men break the film into sixteen chapters with titles like The Accident or The Caper which serve as little vignettes as they reveal the story. Wilder always writes great dialogue not just for his leading actors but for his supporting actors as well. Doctors, nurses, and nuns all have some funny lines. And although THE FORTUNE COOKIE is a comedy, COOKIE may be one of Wilder's most cynical films since ACE IN THE HOLE (1951). But he can't let it have a downbeat ending and so Hinkle finally comes to his senses and breaks away from the phonies who have misled him. The fortune in Hinkle's fortune cookie represents Wilder's view of society.  "You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time!" Hinkle is Gingrich's fortune cookie, his chance to make a fortune by faking Hinkle's injury. But the cookie will crumble for Gingrich as Hinkle's guilt becomes too big a burden to bear.

Jack Lemmon as Harry Hinkle is solid, a bit more restrained in THE FORTUNE COOKIE than in Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT (1957). Perhaps some of Lemmon's restraint comes from having to wear neck braces and leg casts throughout the film. Lemmon handles an electric wheelchair with great skill and flair. But THE FORTUNE COOKIE is really Walter Matthau's coming out party as William Gingrich . One legal eagle says of  Gingrich, "He's so full of twists. He starts to describe a donut and it comes out a pretzel." Wilder and Diamond skewer the lawyer profession and Gingrich is the prototype sleazy lawyer. Gingrich even lets his two children skateboard around the hospital and his home, hoping for a lawsuit if his children were to fall. Matthau not only won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Gingrich, he also suffered a heart attack during the filming of THE FORTUNE COOKIE which temporarily halted production. When Matthau returned to filming, he had lost 30 pounds.

Ron Rich as Boom Boom Jackson, the Cleveland Browns running back is the most genuine character in the film. Rich plays Boom Boom as a sensitive, compassionate athlete, not exactly what audiences would expect from a football player. Judi West as Hinkle's ex-wife Sandy is the one weak character.  The role has Marilyn Monroe-ish like qualities but West is not Monroe. Her major acting trait is to smoke like a chimney. Wilder appears to make her a sympathetic character, concerned about Hinkle's injury but abruptly switches her true intentions at the end.  Look for young sports announcer Keith Jackson (famous for covering college football games for ABC) playing a TV sports announcer at the Browns game.  Also, look for William Christopher who would play Father Mulcahy on the TV show MASH making his screen debut in THE FORTUNE COOKIE as a young intern. I also spotted a young Richard Roundtree (SHAFT) as one of the men who beats up Boom Boom at his bowling alley.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE may be a little too clever for today's comedy audiences who expect outrageous, gross out humor from the likes of Will Farrell and John C. Reilly or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. But THE FORTUNE COOKIE is the genesis of a Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau partnership that would last over 10 films and 29 years and show audiences that funny dialogue and good comedy acting can be just as funny as crude language and scatological jokes.

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